After making his NHL debut Tuesday, after scoring a goal as the Carolina Hurricanes beat the New Jersey Devils, Derek Ryan finally found some private time to be with family.
His wife and son were at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. His father and sister flew in from Spokane, Wash., to see the game, be a part of the moment.
“I think we were all speechless,” Ryan said Wednesday. “My dad’s proud, and my sister’s proud. It was just a great family moment where you’re looking at each other and smiling and hugging each other.”
The proverbial group hug?
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“Absolutely,” Ryan said, smiling. “A few of them.”
Ryan said it was a “long, convoluted journey” that made him, at 29, the oldest player in Hurricanes franchise history to play a first NHL game. There was a time, he said, after playing junior hockey, after four years at the University of Alberta, that he wondered if he should put away the sticks and skates and go in another direction.
“Obviously at that point, the NHL is kind of disregarded and not really part of my future,” he said.
The Spokane native had his bachelor’s degree. He thought about staying in school to study pharmacy or pursue a doctorate.
“I thought about giving up hockey and getting in the real world, I guess you could say,” he said.
But Ryan couldn’t give it up. There still was the passion to play, to try some new avenues and see where hockey would take him.
It took him first to Austria, where he played three seasons from 2011 to 2014. The center then made the jump to Orebro of the Swedish Hockey League, where he played last season and proved to be one of the league’s most productive players.
Ryan led the league in scoring, being named the SHL’s most valuable player after a 15-goal, 45-assist season. He also was drawing NHL attention.
There was a connection to the Hurricanes – Bill Peters. The Canes coach had been Ryan’s coach for two years with the Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League, and Peters appreciated the consistent effort and cerebral play of the 5-11, 170-pound forward.
Signing a one-year, two-way contract in June with Carolina, Ryan played well at training camp before being assigned to the Charlotte Checkers, the Canes’ AHL affiliate. He was named the Checkers’ captain and was the team’s leading scorer.
While the Canes called up forwards such as Brock McGinn and Phil Di Giuseppe during the season, Ryan stayed put. The need for a center was not there – until Sunday.
The trade of Eric Staal to the New York Rangers opened the door for Ryan. Ryan had just landed from a Checkers road trip to Winnipeg, Manitoba, then he was on a flight to New Jersey after his first NHL call-up.
Peters put Ryan in the starting lineup against the Devils. At 4 minutes, 36 seconds of the second period, he drilled a shot from the right circle on a power play.
Devils goalie Cory Schneider couldn’t track the puck. Just like that, Ryan had his first goal, the score was tied, and winger Jeff Skinner was retrieving the puck for a keepsake.
“Everyone needs to get their first one,” Skinner said Wednesday. “It was pretty cool to be a part of it. It was a big moment for him.”
And not just the goal – all of it. Standing on the ice during the national anthem, being a part of a 3-1 victory, being named one of the three stars of the game.
“You’ve got to be impressed, right?” Peters said. “Is he going to score every night? No, no one in this league does. But he sure looked like he fit in. He didn’t look out of place at all.”
Ryan and the Canes put in a practice Wednesday at Raleigh Center Ice. Ryan stayed on the ice with the other rookies afterward, dutifully collecting the pucks before returning to the locker room.
“I’m still a little on Cloud Nine after that awesome evening,” he said. “It’s very surreal. It’s a memory we’ll have and talk about the rest of our lives.
“It’s my first NHL game, and not many guys who play hockey get to do that. Whether it happened at 29 or 20, it means the same to me.”